2003 Prime Minister's Prize for Science

Professor Jacques Miller

The Modern 'Father' of Immunology

Professor Jacques Miller - 2003 Prime Minister's Prize for ScienceIt was two childhood events that led Emeritus Professor (University of Melbourne) Jacques Miller to dedicate his life to investigating how we fight disease. Growing up in Switzerland and China in the midst of the Second World War, Professor Miller found himself steering towards medicine - he wanted to patch people up rather than wound or kill them.

Tragically during his childhood he lost one of his two sisters to tuberculosis in 1940 - only two years before a treatment was discovered. This was the major catalyst in igniting his interest in how the body resists infection.

"I remember hearing conversations between my mother and the doctor stating that we didn't know anything about resistance to infection and that intrigued me," Professor Miller said. When he was 10 years old, Professor Miller's family moved from Shanghai to Australia in 1941 to escape the war. After studying medicine at the University of Sydney, he went on to make two extraordinarily important immunological discoveries.

First, in 1961 he discovered how the thymus - an organ that other scientists had assumed obsolete - was crucial to the immune system, becoming one of the few scientists in history to ever determine the function of an entire organ.

His second major discovery in 1967 was to show that mammals had two distinct types of white blood cells - those created in the thymus (T cells) and those derived from the bone marrow (B cells). Together, these cell populations protect us from the vast array of attackers we meet over our lifetimes, from viruses and bacteria to cancer cells.

Professor Miller's discoveries underpin modern medicine's understanding of how the immune system operates (the Nobel Prize winning research of Professor Peter Doherty would not have been possible without Professor Miller's discoveries). His work forms the basis for developing new strategies for producing better vaccines, preventing organ graft rejection and enhancing cancer cell death. He has also shed light on ways in which the immune system can get things wrong and lead to allergic diseases such as asthma and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and insulin dependent diabetes.

Professor Suzanne Cory, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research said, "Jacques Miller had the rare privilege of discovering the function of a major organ in the human body - indeed, he is probably the last scientist to be able to claim this distinction. His work has spearheaded a revolution in our understanding of how immunity is generated".

It was through Professor Miller's early work in leukaemia research that he 'stumbled' upon the discovery of the function of the thymus.

"There are many examples of 'accidental' findings which turn out to be very important," Professor Miller said. "That's why I think basic research is so important - it often produces significant clinical applications."

While 'retired', Professor Miller, now 72, still works three to four days each week at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, which he joined in 1966. He still travels the nation and the world talking about his lifelong dedication to fighting disease. Professor Miller also speaks Italian and is an accomplished artist - he currently has a series of life drawings on exhibition at a Melbourne gallery. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Margaret.

Autobiographical Details

  • 1931 Born in Nice, France
  • 1949 University of Sydney Medical School
  • 1953 B.Sc. Med (Hons) University of Sydney
  • 1955 MB BS University of Sydney
  • 1955 Received Australian citizenship
  • 1960 Awarded PhD in Experimental Pathology, University of London
  • 1965 Awarded DSc in Experimental Pathology and Immunology, University of London
  • 1965 Associate Professor in Experimental Pathology, University of London
  • 1966 Head, Experimental Pathology, Walter and Eliza Hal Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), Melbourne
  • 1972 Visiting Fellow, Basel Institute for Immunology
  • 1979 Visiting Fellow, Centre d'Immunologie INSERM-CNRS de Marseille-Luminy
  • 1985 Awarded a BA, University of Melbourne
  • 1986 Visiting Fellow, Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, Heidelberg, Germany
  • 1990 Professor, Chair of Experimental Immunology, University of Melbourne and the WEHI
  • 1997 Emeritus Professor at WEHI and the University of Melbourne.

Career Highlights

  • 2001 Copley Medal and Prize of the Royal Society, London, the Society's highest award for outstanding achievement in any branch of science. Previous Copley Medallists include Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein
  • 1983 International Saint-Vincent Prize for Medical Science, WHO & UNESCO
  • 1982 Elected Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • 1981 Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished services to medicine
  • 1970 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London

Research Contributions

  • Discovering the function of the thymus and its role in the immune system
  • Discovering that there were two types of white blood cells - T and B cells

These two discoveries underpin all modern advances in our understanding of how the immune system operates in health and disease.

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